Late August is traditionally known as the "dog days of Summer" in the Northern hemisphere. Google defines it as "the hottest period of the year (reckoned in antiquity from the heliacal rising of Sirius, the Dog Star)." I had to look up heliacal, although you can guess—"relating to or near the sun." Urban Dictionary says the dog days of Summer are those days "in the summer where it is so hot or humid that the dogs go crazy." Where? Ouch. Use your writing words, U.D.: when.
(My least favorite example of using speech words in place of writing words: that for who. "The athletes that are coming home from Rio early." It greats every time! It should be, of course, "The athletes who are coming home from Rio early.")
(Greats for grates: just my little joke. That's the kind of thing that always grates.)
You know what word always bugged me? Read. Because the past tense and the present tense are pronounced differently but spelled the same. Who decided that? "I was so bored yesterday I read ("red") three-quarters of my new book." "Are you going to read ("reed") that new bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy?"
I read two books over a three-day period during my semi-vacation in an effort to learn a bit more about the Trump phenomenon. The first was, yes, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a name the author did not assume until his marriage. Vance's family (who mark with pride their association to the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud) emigrated to Ohio but retained an almost mystical connection to the "hollers" in the Kentucky Appalachians whence they sprang. His mother was a drug addict who took up with a parade of different men over the years, and he sought out his biological father, a stranger to him, later in his young life. He was raised largely by his grandmother, a woman who talked like a sailor and was so ornery she once set fire to her husband.
Vance himself escaped his heritage. He joined the Marines for four years as a way of getting to Ohio State University, where he worked so hard he graduated in less than two years; then, improbably, he got himself into Yale Law School. Yet he was so out of place culturally that at a high-level recruiting dinner at Yale Law, he had to retreat to the bathroom to text a friend for an emergency primer about what all the silverware was for, and when they served him sparkling water, he spat it out, thinking something was wrong with it. He had never tasted it before.
Vance makes a case for a "hillbilly diaspora," a term he himself doesn't use. Curiously, I've recently been hearing "-tucky" appended as a suffix to various place-names where poor whites of Scots-Irish descent predominate. A relative recently told me she lives in "Pennsyltucky," for instance (she lives near Pittsburgh). J.D. thinks hillbilly culture permeates the white lower class in many places, noting some commonalities: that they're very loyal to Christianity and read the Bible but don't go to church much (or act very "Christian"); they consider themselves "hardworking" but actually have little capacity for hard work; and despite being fiercely proud, they are hampered by a chronic victim mentality. On hearing that he got into Yale Law, for instance, a friend asked him whether he pretended to be a minority or a liberal to get in. Defeated before they try, is Vance's bootstrapper's verdict.
Although not a Trump supporter himself, he's a conservative who is now friends with many people from the Bush II administration, and has some things to say about why Trump appeals to Americans like the people in his family. However, the positivity of the story is helping the book to appeal to people of all political persuasions.
That story is a classic "Horatio Alger" tale, and it's plenty stirring. The book is dramatic and genuinely uplifting like few I've read lately. It's not sociology, of course, but mainly memoir—or maybe four parts memoir to one part sociology—but the impression I get is of someone honestly struggling to understand the two cultures he straddles, not someone making glib, unsubstantiated talking points for political purposes. Although he's not afraid to blame "hillbilly" culture for its flaws, throughout the book he maintains two distinct attitudes: a deep loyalty and love for his family and his people, and grateful acknowledgement to all those who helped him get where he is now. Both set Hillbilly Elegy apart from other rags-to-success tales.
I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear of J.D. Vance running for office as a Republican in the future—the book does have more than a whiff of the "political origin story" to it. But it also has the feel of a guy coming clean in a big public way because he's tired of hiding his origins, especially given his deep love of his unabashedly hillbilly grandparents.
It's a short but terrific book that will most likely lift your spirits. Here's the link to Amazon, the Book Depository (which doesn't charge for International shipping), and Amazon U.K. Links to other Amazons can be found here.
By the way, the book is currently #1 on the New York Times Best-Seller List in its category, hardcover nonfiction.
The book I read directly after Hillbilly Elegy is The Making of Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston (no relation). Johnston is a hard-core investigative journalist with a long list of credentials. A few things about this one: it was rushed to publication so it can be a part of the political conversation in the run-up to the election; Johnston says as much. His approach, though, is probably at odds with much of what you have read about Trump, because Johnston refrains from name-calling, alarmism, psychological diagnoses, and hysteria, and confines himself just to a hard factual account of the things Trump has done in public over his lifetime—and even then, he sticks to the facts that can be documented (and that will withstand threats of retaliatory lawsuits—Johnston recounts a book and a movie that were both initially suppressed by Trump that way). About the worst name that Johnston calls Trump is "a deceiver," added in an epilogue at the end of the book, by which time it seems decidedly mild. Even when he claims that Trump is one of the least qualified individuals ever to run for president, real reasons are given (for instance, that most of Trump's promises aren't within the powers of a president).
There's also some evidence that Johnston wrote the book meaning for it to serve as a factual primer for other journalists, since he has covered Trump more thoroughly than most.
Although it too is short, this book is as troubling and discouraging as Hillbilly Elegy is inspiring and uplifting. For that reason, I can't say I recommend it, but if you want an account of Trump's career that is "just the facts, ma'am," this might be for you.
"Open Mike" is the often off-topic editorial page of TOP. It now appears on Wednesdays.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Maggie Osterberg: "You just reminded me of one of my peeves: Folks, the thing at the back bottom of your shoe is a 'heel.' It's not a 'heal,' nor do women's shoes have 'high heals.' If you use 'heal,' instead of 'heel,' when describing a shoe, you're a heel. I hope the rest of you found this as healing as I did."
Kalli: "And here I thought this would be about Alec Soth's book Dog Days Bogota."
Mike replies: I have that book too, and I have to say (although I'm reluctant to say) that it's probably my favorite book of his. I find his more serious outings to be flinty and cold somehow. Each time I look at one I'm left with a sort of troubled feeling and I usually wish I'd left it on the shelf.
DB: "Re 'It greats every time!' I see what you did their."
Ben: In the vein of the 'hillbilly diaspora,' I recently read American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard. It's an interesting history of the cultural bases of the major North American regions, and discusses the founding and spread of the Appalachian nation.
"And that for who really gets me too. I see it from many, many writers that should know better ;-) "
Mike replies: I see what you did their. (With apologies to DB!)
Marc Rochkind: "I read and very much liked Hillbilly Elegy, shortly after I read Paul Theroux's Deep South, which is a much broader look at the deep South, from an outsider's perspective, but equally rewarding. TOP readers will be interested to note that the photographs in Deep South are by none other than Steve McCurry."
Michael Matthews: "Kudos to TOP's readership for abstaining from the volcanic eruption of wild-eyed comments any mention of politics usually brings these days. Or, to you—for moderating the hell out of the responses.
"As to J.D. Vance's book: some readers might come to the conclusion his chaotic childhood may have led to painting his subject with an overly broad brush. Not so. My 75 years' direct experience tells me he's nailed it."